(1st B. Williams of Thame)

Born: 1503, Thame, Oxfordshire, England

Died: 14 Oct 1559, Ludlow Castle, Ludlow, Shropshire, England

Buried: 15 Nov 1559, Thame, Oxfordshire, England

Father: John WILLIAMS of Burghfield

Mother: Isabel MORE

Married 1: Elizabeth BLEDLOW (b. 1490 - d. 25 Oct 1556) (dau. of Thomas Bledlow) (w. of Andrew Edmonds) BEF 1524


1. John WILLIAMS (d. 1551)

2. Henry WILLIAMS (Sir Knight)

3. Margery WILLIAMS (B. Norreys of Rycote)

4. Francis WILLIAMS (d. 1551)

5. Isabella WILLIAMS

Married 2: Margaret WENTWORTH 19 Apr 1557



Born by 1503, second surviving son of Sir John Williams of Burghfield by Isabel, dau. and coheiress of Richard More of Burghfield. Married first, by Jul 1524, Elizabeth, dau. and coheiress of Thomas Bledlow of Bledlow, Bucks., widow of Andrew Edmonds of Cressing Temple, Essex, (d. 23 Jun 1523), by whom he had three sons and two daughters. Married secondly, settlement 19 Apr 1557, Margaret, dau. of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Lord Wentworth of Nettlestead by Margaret, dau. of Sir Adrian Fortescue; by whom he had one daughter. Kntd. 15 Nov 1538/28 Jun 1539; cr. Lord Williams of Thame 1554. ?Chancery official by 1526; clerk of the King's jewels 8 May 1530, jt. (with Thomas Cromwell) master c. Jan 1535, sole 1540-44, receiver, lands formerly of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham Mar 1531, Thame abbey by 1535; j.p. Bucks. 1535, Oxon. 1535-7. 1542-7 or later, Berks. 1544, Northants. 1554; sheriff, Oxon. and Berks. 1538-9; 1544-5, Sep-Nov 1553; visitor of monasteries 1538, commr. subsidy, Oxon. 1540, benevolence 1544/45, chantries, Northants., Oxon., Rutland 1546, 1548, of Admiralty in Nov 1547, relief, Berks., Oxon., Northants. 1550, musters, Salop, Staffs., Warws. 1559; steward, manors of Grafton and Hartwell, Northants. Feb 1540, Easton Neston, Northants. 1542; master of cygnets in Thames Mar 1542; treasurer, ct. augmentations Mar 1544-Jan 1554; high steward, Oxford ?by 1553; chamberlain to King Felipe Apr 1554-8; trier of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of Nov 1554, 1555 and 1559; pres. council in the marches of Wales Feb 1559-d.

John Williams of Burghfield in Berkshire & Preston Candover in Hampshire, was of Welsh descent, a direct descendant of Iestyn ap Gwrgant, the last ruler of the principality of Glamorgan. His father was the first of the line to anglicize his name and probably the first to seek his fortune in England. He was a kinsman of Morgan Williams who married Cromwell's sister, a relationship which must have helped his son in his early career: in 1535 Gregory Cromwell wrote to his own father from Rycote that he had been splendidly entertained by all the neighbourhood, especially by Williams. In 1544 Richard Cromwell, alias Williams, Morgan Williams's son, left Sir John Williams two of his best horses. He has also been described as a servant to Cardinal Wolsey and to King Henry VIII.

It is not certain which of the family first became established in the region of Thame. John Williams's sister Anne married William King of Thame, and by 1535 another sister was prioress of Studley, another, Jane, was married to a cousin of Sir John Cheney of Shurland, but it was Williams's own marriage which was probably decisive, for Bledlow is only five miles from Thame. The marriage to Elizabeth Bedlow, the widow of an important Londoner, also suggests that by 1524 Williams was a royal servant with London connexions; these may have included Sir John Dauntesey, his neighbour at Thame.

In 1526 the young John Williams appears on the list of servants of Cardinal Wolsey at the newly completed Hampton Court Palace, built by Wolsey, and presented to King Henry VIII in 1525. On 6 Apr 1530, he was appointed a clerk of the King's jewels, with a salary of twenty marks (£13-6s-8d), in succession to Thomas Wyatt. On 6 Mar following, he was made receiver of the lands of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham On 8 May 1531, he received a grant in reversion of the office of principal clerk of the King's jewels. In 1535, he was placed on the commission of the peace for Oxford, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and, in Apr 1536, he was associated with Cromwell in the office of master or treasurer of the King's jewels. In 1536 Williams increased his reputation by his prompt and effective action against the Lincolnshire rebellion. In 1537 he was commissioned to investigate allegations against the abbots of Eynsham and Osney and to sit with Dauntesey to hear charges of sedition at Thame. Although he was probably responsible for the reprieve of Studley in that year, he was assiduous in receiving the surrender of monasteries and particularly, as master of the jewels, in ransacking their shrines. At the age of 37, John Williams was knighted by the King. Early in 1538 he took 5,000 marks’ worth of gold and silver from Bury St. Edmunds; between 7 and 11 Mar he stripped Abingdon and was reported to have left 100 barge-loads of spoils at the waterside; and at three o'clock on a Saturday morning in Sep, he and two others ‘made an end’ of the shrine of St. Swithun at Winchester, taking the trouble to ‘sweep away all the rotten bones called relics’ lest the citizens think that they came only for the treasure. In the previous May he and Thomas Lee had taken the surrender of Woburn, where he heard accusations of treason against the abbot and eventually became the receiver of the property. In Oxfordshire he took the surrenders of Eynsham, Godstow, Osney, Studley and Thame, that of Studley from his own sister. Between 1542 and 1557 he pulled down and sold the materials of Gloucester Hall, Oxford. He is said to have been knighted on 18 Oct 1537, but he is first so styled, in contemporary documents, on 29 Sep 1539.

The abbot of Thame was Anne Williams's brother-in-law Robert King, for whom Williams had secured the abbacy of Oseney in commendam in 1537 and who in 1541 became Bishop of Thame and Oseney and in 1545 first Bishop of Oxford, no doubt with Williams's continued assistance. If he could look after a relative in this way, Williams was able to do much more for himself. He had begun by securing a 21-year lease of the crown's demesne lands at Grafton, Northamptonshire, in 1528 and the reversion of lands at Upper Winchendon, Buckinghamshire, four years later. With the Dissolution there began an impressive series of grants and purchases.

He had already bought the house at Rycote, which became his chief seat, from Giles Heron, the son of Sir John Heron, Treasurer of the Household to both King Henry VIII and his father King Henry VII, who had himself acquired it from the bankrupt Richard Fowler in 1521. He also had secured an interest in the estates of Thame abbey. His possession of Rycote was confirmed by an Act of 1539 (31 Hen. VIII, c.19), introduced into the Lords by Williams himself, and reaffirmed in the following year by a proviso to Heron's Act of attainder (32 Hen. VIII, c.58). In 1540 Henry VIII spent his 'honeymoon' with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, at Rycote Palace. On this occasion, his host was Sir John Williams, now owner of both Rycote and Thame Park.

In 1538 he purchased Wytham, Berkshire, from Leonard Chamberlain and began to form a second cluster of properties west of Oxford, while his purchase of a manor in Monmouthshire may reflect some awareness of his origins. In Cripplegate, London, he purchased the priory of Elsingspital for some £530 and up to 1547 he made five further purchases, in conjunction with other speculators, of monastic lands to a total value of about £8,000, much of which was resold. At the beginning of Edward VI's reign he bought the abbeys of Thame and Notley, near Thame, from the Duke of Somerset and Sir William Paget. His last major purchase was that of the priory of Marlow in 1555.

The fall of Cromwell does not seem to have affected Williams's position, save in making him sole master of the jewels. On 26 Aug 1540 the Privy Council met at Rycote and a week later it added his name to the Oxfordshire subsidy commission. On Christmas Eve 1541, there was a great fire at his house in Elsingspital, during which many of the jewels were stolen. In 1544 he was licensed to retain ten men in addition to his household servants and was listed as the captain of 20 archers and 40 billmen in the King's battle of the army against France. His career in royal administration culminated in his appointment as treasurer of the augmentations in 1544 with a yearly salary of £320. Strype is in error in asserting that he retained the mastership of the King's jewels until 1552, Williams having exchanged it, in 1544, for the treasurership of the court of augmentations in succession to Edward, 1st Baron North, and the keeper of the jewels in Edward VI's reign being Sir Anthony Aucher.

To Williams's tenure of this office are due the innumerable references to him in the state papers and acts of the privy council; but he was without much political importance and was not even named an assistant executor to Henry VIII's will. Williams is first known to have been elected to the Parliament of 1542, although he could have sat for a borough in its precursor of 1539, for which most of the returns are lost. His shrievalty doubtless excluded him from the last Parliament of the reign, but he was to sit in the three summoned before his ennoblement. It was presumably he rather than his son Henry, knight of the shire for Northamptonshire, who as Mr. Williams had a bill concerning sheriffs committed to him after its second reading on 8 Dec 1547, and certainly he to whom one concerning tithes and another on regrators and forestallers were committed during the second session of that Parliament on 22 Feb and 1 Mar 1549. In the third session he was doubtless the recipient of a bill to encourage husbandry, first read on 4 Jan 1550, and another for putting away old service books after its second reading ten days later. On 21 Jan 1549 he secured privilege for his servant Anthony Butler. He was himself an unpopular landlord and a victim of the rising in Oxfordshire in the summer of 1549 when the commons ‘disparked his park(s) ... and killed all the deer’ at Rycote and Thame. It is not surprising, therefore, in view of Somerset's alleged leniency to the rebels, that Williams was one of the three ordered to Windsor on 10 Oct 1549 to ‘protect’ the King and arrest Somerset.

In Oct 1551 the Imperial Ambassador reported that Williams himself had been arrested, an act which, since Williams possessed a huge amount of livestock and was loathed by the people, was meant to show that the Duke of Northumberland wanted to ease the people's burdens. There is no other evidence of the arrest before 8 Apr 1552, when the Privy Council ordered the warden of the Fleet prison to receive him and to allow none to converse with him. By 25 Apr the confinement was affecting his health and he was allowed to exercise and to be visited by his family and friends; the ill-health seems to have persisted, for on the Crown Office list of the Parliament of Oct 1553 he is described as ‘infirmus’. According to the King's journal, Williams had disobeyed an order not to pay pensions without the Council's foreknowledge, and it was for ‘lack of doing his duty in his office’ that he made his humble submission on 22 May 1552, when he was released. The Privy Council continued to issue warrants to Williams throughout his imprisonment. There is little reason to question the official version of his offence, although his unpopularity may have made him a target, and there are other pointers to his having fallen short of even the far from rigorous standards of the time. Only in May 1552 were his accounts as master of the jewels cleared, and in Mary's reign he was to be in trouble over his augmentations accounts. On 5 Jun 1556 he was charged with a debt of £2,500; he promised to pay within a fortnight but five days later, in consideration of his service, he was pardoned all arrears both as master of the jewels and treasurer of augmentations. At the end of Edward VI's reign these arrears had already stood at over £28,000. Despite the pardon, the Privy Council was still discussing Williams's accounts in May 1558.

The Council recommended to the sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire that Williams should be returned for Oxfordshire to the Parliament of Mar 1553, but he had to yield first place to Northumberland's brother Sir Andrew Dudley, whose recent acquisitions in the county were making him a threat to Williams's local preponderance. On grounds of self-interest Williams might therefore have been expected to go over to Mary and in the event he sprang to her support with the alacrity he had shown in 1536 and with the same reward for himself. He is said to have raised 6,000 men, including cavalry recruited among the peasantry, and the news of the response to his summons was believed to have had a decisive effect on the Council in London. On 22 Jul he was ordered to dismiss his men and to wait upon the Queen who continued to employ him in a military role; on the 29 Jul, he conducted the Princess Elizabeth through London to Somerset Place and, on 3 Aug, he was sent to suppress some commotions at Royston and in Cambridgeshire; on 12 Aug 1553 he and Leonard Chamberlain were given £2,000, on 14 Aug 400 lances and 500 corselets and on the 15th six field pieces. In the following Feb he was commanded to provide 100 horse and 100 foot for the Queen's retinue. Following her assent to the throne in 1553, Queen Mary Tudor made Sir John Williams Baron Williams of Thame.

He discharged the office of sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire for a few weeks in the autumn of 1553 and Mary thereafter treated him as her henchman in Oxfordshire. In this capacity he was involved in the custody and execution of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, and the safe-keeping of Princess Elizabeth. In the same capacity he examined John Philpot. On 19 May 1554 he joined Sir Henry Bedingfield and Sir Leonard Chamberlain to escort Elizabeth from the Tower to Woodstock. Rycote Palace was a natural overnight stop for such a party undertaking the four day journey from London to Oxford. Lord Williams however laid on a lavish welcome for the young Elizabeth at Rycote, at which many local dignitaries, including Robert King, Bishop of Oxford, were present. It is not clear either that he was ever in sole charge of her, or that he was replaced by Bedingfield for his leniency, but he gained a lasting reputation for kindness to Elizabeth on her journeys to and from Woodstock. On both occasions he entertained her at Rycote and, according to Foxe, protested that he would die for her if necessary and clashed with Bedingfield over the respect he paid her. There is some likelihood, therefore, that he was the ‘Lord William’ reported by the Imperial Ambassador in Mar 1555 to be conspiring with Elizabeth and plotting to marry her to Edward Courtenay. Williams's favourable reputation with Protestants is also clear from Foxe's report of his treatment of the condemned bishops, whom he conducted to Oxford from the Tower in Mar 1554 and at whose executions he presided in Oct 1555 and Mar 1556. The rumour is therefore intelligible which is reported to have been rife in Sep 1554, that the see of Canterbury ‘was given to a Spanish friar’; and the Lord Williams was out of his chamberlainship, and Secretary Petre out of his office.

There is no evidence that Williams ever betrayed his allegiance to Mary and he remained in favour throughout the reign. In Apr 1554 he was summoned to Parliament as Lord Williams of Thame; this was in part to compensate him for his loss of the treasurership office when the court of augmentations was dissolved and in part to give him the dignity necessary to his new office of chamberlain to King Felipe. The creation was doubtless by writ of summons to Parliament, dated 17 Feb 1554, and the proceedings mentioned by the chroniclers under date 5 Apr were merely confirmatory. It was he who with Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel met Felipe at the gates of Southampton on 20 Jul 1554. On losing his augmentations office Williams was granted an annuity of £320, and in Mar 1554 he received a gift of 200 crowns from the Queen and in Jul a pension of 1,000 crowns from the King. He was fairly regular in his attendance in the Lords throughout the remainder of the reign and had several bills committed to him in the Parliaments of Apr 1554 and 1555, including one to confirm the articles of the Spanish marriage. In 1555 he was one of four peers who voted against a bill ‘for the keeping of milch kine’ and the sole dissenter from a bill for the repeal of an Act of 1497 concerning merchant adventurers (12 Hen. VII, c.6); in 1558 he was again the sole dissenter from a bill to cancel import licences for French or Gascon wines.

Elizabeth Bledlow had died in 1556 and is buried in Rycote Chapel, although her effigy lies beside that of her husband in Thame Church. Johh Williams had married again in the last years of his life. His second wife was Margaret Wentworth, who died in 1588.

With Elizabeth on the throne Williams's ability to keep on good terms with all parties once more paid him well. One of his servants brought the Queen's proclamation to Oxford, and he was one of the lords appointed to attend Elizabeth from Hatfield to London. Two months later he was appointed President of the Council in the Marches of Wales. He was also, in that year, made a visitor of the Welsh dioceses and of Oxford University. But by the following Mar he was seriously ill and before he was able to make any impression on the marches he died at Ludlow on 14 Oct 1559, being attended by John Jewel (afterwards Bishop of Salisbury). Only at the very end of his life is there a suggestion that he was other than a leading example of the profiteer from the religious revolution: in his last illness he received into his house for a period Bishop Jewel, once vicar of Sunningwell, near Oxford, where Williams had an estate, and in 1559 just returned from exile.
Williams was buried with great pomp at Thame on 15 Nov 1559, and his tomb remains in the church. By his first wife, Williams had issue three sons: John, who died unmarried and was buried at St. Alphege, London Wall, on 18 Feb 1559, his funeral sermon being preached by John Veron; Henry, who married Anne, dau. of Henry Stafford, 1st Baron Stafford, but died without issue on 20 Aug 1551; and Francis, who died unmarried. The Barony thus became extinct, if it was created by patent; if it was created by writ, it fell into abeyance between his two daughters, Isabel (who married Richard Wenman, great-grandfather of Thomas, 2nd Viscount Wenman) and Margery (who married Henry Norreys, afterwards Baron Norreys of Rycote). The family of Lord Williams' brother, Reginald, continued in Burghfield for another two generations.

By his will, dated 8 Mar 1559 and proved in 1560, Williams left the rectories and parsonages of Brill, Oakley and Borstall, in Buckinghamshire, and Easton Weston, in Northamptonshire, to his executors for the purpose of founding a free school at Thame. The school buildings were begun in 1574 and an account of the foundation, privately printed in 1675, is in the Bodleian Library. Among the alumni of Thame School were Dr. John Fell, Shakerley Marmion, Anthony A'Wood, Edward Pococke and Henry King, Bishop of Chichester. Williams also bequeathed money to the almshouses at Thame. To his wife Williams left several manors, his house at Elsingspital and cups given by the Queen, the Duchess of Norfolk and Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, at the christening of one of her children; she later married in turn William Drury and James Croft. To Bedford he left his personal armour and to Sir Robert Dudley a black mare called ‘Maud Mullford which mare I take to be the best mare in England’. Several rectories were assigned for the endowment of a free school at Thame and provision was also made for the restoration of the footway between Oxford and Botley and the support of Botley road upon stone arches: a bill for the amendment of causeways and highways had been committed to Mr. Williams, either Sir John or Thomas Williams, a Member for Oxford, in the Parliament of Oct 1553. The executors included Sir Walter Mildmay and the supervisors the Earl of Bedford and Sir William Cecil.


Elton, Tudor Revolution in Government

C. A. J. Skeel, Council in the Marches of Wales
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